Yep, this is a good blog subject, to read about and, let’s be honest, to do research on... I can't exhaust this question in just one blog post, as there are too many good options, and also it will leave me with no excuse to continue researching! So today I am writing about where I like to go for aperitivo in Monforte D’Alba, my home town. Stay tuned for more aperitivo hot spots...
What exactly is aperitivo, you may ask? Italians think about food all the time. Even when they are eating, they are planning their next meal. So what do you do, after a big lunch, and a nap, but before you can think about dinner at 8pm (or 9pm, depending on how ‘European’ you are)? Cue aperitivo. It’s that idle time between nap and dinner time when Italians get to think about food again... over a drink. 'Nuff said.
Here is a list of some of my regular places in Monforte D’Alba, depending on my mood.
Moda: set in an old palace recently and decadently refurbished, aperitivo here makes you feel like a million bucks. And for only about 5 euros (depending on the wine), you get a good glass of wine or bubbles (various Italian choices and champagne too) and a beautiful array of upmarket snacks. When the weather is fine, you can sit outside, listening to the bubbling fountain in a beautifully manicured terrace overlooking Monforte village and the Alps on a clear day. A-mazing.
Saracca: in case you don’t want to opt for the palace, you can choose an old medieval castle instead! Just up the road from Moda, owner Giulio and bar chick Sara are the perfect hosts. There is a great range of wines by the glass and a huge smorgasbord of cured meats, cheeses, olives and various daily snacks. A great venue, and a great vibe, always, and particularly good for the cooler, winter months. Also, you can drink here until all hours, so think of it as a place for a night cap as well as an aperitivo!
Barolo Bar: more of a local institution, located down a side street off the main piazza. In summer, they offer aperitivo on the terrazza, which is a beautiful open area opposite the bar upstairs. Drinks can be hoisted up with an old basket and pulley ‘system’. At the moment, on Wednesday nights they have live music (could be rock bands, DJs, Latino or acoustic). Again, an interesting array of wines and snacks, plus it is also a bottle shop, so if you like the wine you tried, you can take it home for dinner.
Grappolo D’Oro: another Monforte D’Alba institution in prime location, choose this place for people watching. Perch yourself in the main square of the bustling little village, and watch the people come and go. Plus, if you have kids, they can run around the piazza, if they are not otherwise being entertained / distracted by Italians (men, women and children alike) doting on them. Snacks are more limited – think bowls of chips and nuts.
Locanda della Contessa Berta: a new comer, but a force to be reckoned with. Run by two young friends, Davide and Valentina, this is another good option for an aperitivo in the square, but from a different angle.
I'm always looking for more aperitivo options (for research purposes, of course). Do you have a favourite bar for aperitivo?
On the day before Ferragosto, the biggest holiday in Italy, our mission was to find a dairy farm in the mountains for our two little girls to see, and possibly milk, mountain cows. By chance, we stumbled across Agriturismo Agrifoglio, a cute agriturismo just 5 minutes out of Limone Piemonte, a picturesque mountain village in the French Maritime Alps. The food was simple but delicious, and we ate overlooking their cows (and a calf) grazing peacefully with a stunning mountain backdrop.
One of the cool things about the Langhe is its proximity to a number of mountain ranges, the French Maritime Alps and Ligurian Alps (about 1 hour) and the Swiss Alps (2 hours). There are so many charming little mountain villages to explore, so where to begin?
Limone Piemonte is immediately appealing - a gorgeous little village located in Col di Tende between the French Riviera and the Italian Riviera. At just over an hour and 15 min drive from the Langhe, it is a perfect day trip in the summer to get some fresh mountain air or in the winter for world class skiing. It is also a convenient mid way point on the back road between the Langhe and Nice (France). (I was interested in the role Its strategic location played in its history and found a good summary on the village's website.)
The village itself is very attractive, with stone-built chalets and a chic feel, boutique shops and a wide range of restaurants, including both French and Italian, with a focus on mountain cuisine (think raclette, polenta). We could easily have eaten at one the many restaurants in the town, but given it was the day before Ferragosto, to say it was busy is a gross understatement.... So we ventured out of the town to seek out a mountain retreat, and we found Agriturismo Agrifoglio.
The Agriturismo was a great find - picture-perfect location, nestled within two imposing mountain ranges. The building itself appeared to have been recently renovated. It was tastefully decorated, but homey, with exposed stone vaulted ceilings, I can imagine it being stunning also in winter. And there were cows! Right on the grass out front of the restaurant, and one little calf. We were also lucky to find a cute puppy that needed a new home, but somehow we managed to resist taking him with us....
The restaurant at the agriturismo was the quintessential experience. There were two or three simple menus using their own or local produce, all inclusive for EUR25 for a plate of antipasti, a main meal (various grilled meat options, or polenta and cheese) and either cheese plate or dessert, together with coffee, water and digestive included. They also had a kid's menu of hamburger or pasta, drink and dessert for EUR10. The antipasti platter was impressive, with a nice mix of vegetables (fried green tomatoes, stuffed zucchini, fried zucchini flowers) and meat ('vitello tonnato' (poached veal with tuna sauce), herb-stuffed roll of rabbit, and house-cured 'lardo' on crostini with cheese). For main, I had the veal grill and the meat was so tender and the char-grilled flavours were sublime. And for dessert, there was a platter of three, the highlight being the stuffed peaches (poached peaches filled with amaretti biscuits and chocolate).
A cut above, we will return, maybe in winter next time.
If you’re a fine diner, on any trip to the Langhe in Piedmont (or even Italy, for that matter), it would be remiss of you not to consider visiting the three-Michelin starred restaurant, Piazza Duomo, which overlooks the piazza of the same name in Alba, the town that plays host to the international white truffle fair every year in October and November. The restaurant, a project of the Ceretto family, famous wine-producers of the Langhe and head chef Enrico Crippa, is the Langhe’s only three-Michelin starred restaurant, and one of eight in all of Italy. Crowned by the Michelin guide as the best restaurant in Piedmont in arguably the best region for food in Italy, it is possibly one of the best restaurants in Italy. And having dined there recently, I can confirm it is all that it is cracked up to be – simply an unforgettable experience, where eating the white truffle of Alba is a work of art.
The entrance is an almost unmarked door down a laneway off the main piazza of Alba, a small but internationally famous formerly walled Roman town. The door is a deep crimson hue, and made me think that the restaurant would have a sensual and brooding atmosphere. Once inside, however, the feeling is quite different. Walking up brightly-lit stairs we were greeted by the charming maître d’. The décor is somewhat understated, minimalist, very modern and sleek but not cold or sterile. Adorned on the walls is an incredible work of art depicting, among other things, the 7 continents of the world in grape leaf formations. Jackets are taken and anticipation is high, and we are taken to one of very few tables in an incredibly intimate space. But ‘intimate’ may in fact be a misnomer because even though the room is small, the tables are set well apart allowing patrons to talk without being overheard. Also the lighting is strangely bright but I decided that this is because the food and wine are serious business here and you need to see properly all dishes in perfect light, like exhibiting art at a gallery.
But given the small number of tables (probably less than 30), you feel like you are sharing an exclusive experience with the other diners; a sort of private show that is somehow performed night after night, year after year, with relentless meticulousness. I never felt even a hint of weariness. I have dined twice at Piazza Duomo and both times the energy and enthusiasm exhibited by all players was admirable. Perhaps this is because Piazza Duomo has enjoyed a meteoric rise and there has been no time to stand still or get bored. Opened in 2005, it gained its first Michelin star in 2006, the second in 2009 and was crowned with its third Michelin star on 14 November 2012, when head chef Enrico Crippa was only 41 years of age.
Crippa himself has an impressive CV, having won twice first prize at the Sologne Artistic Cuisine Competition (in 1990 and 1992). And when you see the presentation of the food, learning of this accolade should come as no surprise. All the restaurant’s dishes are presented as pieces of art. One of my favourite dishes is the Panna Cotta Matisse. Panna cotta is a traditional dessert from Piedmont, but the presentation of Crippa’s version is formidable, and makes eating it a shame.
Another stand out dish is the salad known as 21….31….41. One of his signature dishes, the name refers to the number of ingredients that varies depending upon the season, with 41 ingredients at the height of Spring with the most ‘biodiverse’ example of the salad adorned with beautiful microflowers, versus the more restrained winter version of 21 leaves, herbs and garnishes. The method of eating the salad is an art form in itself. It is served in a small upright bowl, you are provided with pincers and instructed to commence at the top of the salad and work your way down to the bottom, as the salad is constructed in a particular way to ensure that the flavours develop in the most pleasing way. At the end, there is a small petri dish of Japanese inspired dressing, that serves as a sort of palate cleanser.
Having been lucky enough to eat the white truffle of Alba a number of times, I can say that the best white truffle dish I have ever had, and possibly the best dish of my life, was Crippa’s signature white truffle dish. This elegant dish is a potato cream, with Lapsang Souchong tea, quail egg and a generous amount of shaved white truffle, served in a beautiful and delicate glass vessel. The recipe was showcased at the Truffle Fair of Alba in 2012 and having read the recipe, there is no way you would ever try to recreate this dish at home. It is truly a dish better left to the experts, to be enjoyed in Alba during the seasonal truffle fair, when the electric atmosphere descends upon Alba during the second half of October and November for the white truffle. Other diners confessed to me that, having sampled many other restaurant’s attempts at showcasing the Alba white truffle, this was by far the most spectacular. Simply put, unforgettable.
What more can I say. Crippa is a genius. Just make sure you book in advance to avoid disappointment.
Eleanor Fletcher - living in the heart of the Langhe, Monforte D'Alba (Barolo). Searching for great eats, formidable drinks and fun times. Married to a Barolo and Barbaresco producer, plus a mother of two 'principesse'.